We are continuously adding new employees to our company. While they can go through as many polished onboardings and initial training programs as possible, there ultimately comes a point where the new employees have to jump into the deep end of our domain products and learn.
Overall, their focus should be on getting better every day. What is “better” though? How does one measure it? One thing is for sure, it does not relate to how hard you feel you are working. It corresponds to the results you actually achieve. Tracking it can be elusive to many, so I thought I would write out a possible way to judge your own progress.
Level 1. Gaining Base Knowledge
Learning a task or domain from scratch is hard. Naturally, it takes longer to learn a certain skill set if you have no foundation to start with. Unfortunately, the best solution I know of is to dive in. During this time, you are creating new neural network connections. If your head does not hurt, you might not be digging enough.
In this initial period, everything seems foreign but I find it best to develop a framework and build your knowledge on top of it. Having a great teacher makes this easier, but we all learn differently. Discovering the right tools and approaches that work best for you helps immensely. Make sure you measure your knowledge progression by comparing how much you understand new items you are reading with your ability to answer possible questions on the topic.
Level 2. Leveraging Knowledge to Improve Speed
As you continue learning, you slowly get faster as it takes less time to figure out what you need to do next and how it relates to your existing knowledge. In this second level, you are starting to see the patterns and the application of one element with another similar problem you have already solved. Your knowledge intake starts to speed up and your progress increases your confidence.
Unfortunately, this is where some people get comfortable and slow down. No longer having a headache is a nice feeling! While you should be able to measure your progress here based on similar metrics to Level 1, your ability to do so with speed and in highly stressful situations should be an additional metric as well.
Level 3. Automation of Tasks
Once you have accomplished a form of domain mastery, completing a task or answering a question a certain amount of times can become repetitive. While it may feel good to know you can solve this problem yet again, you should start to create tools to enhance your speed and achieve your goals faster (e.g., reusable code for developers). Level 3 is where you need to be aware of exceptions to your framework and ensure your automated approach does not replace low speed and high quality with high speed and low quality. You want high speed and high quality.
I find most people stop here. They believe they have maximized their output. While that may depend on your role, I do not believe this to be universally true. Instead, this is where you can start to delve into higher levels that are often much harder to fight through. In reaching this threshold, you should measure your progress based on how many new problems you are coming across (your automation solutions should be removing many repetitive challenges you face).
Level 4. Anticipation of Problems Before They Happen
In this stage, you are already the master of the topic and its automation. You should no longer be focusing on merely doing things faster, but looking for ways to resolve issues at their core. For example, rather than moving from a Level 2 challenge of training a user to a Level 3 challenge of automating that training, look for ways to remove the need for training in the first place.
If you write code, rather than rapidly fixing bugs, focus on the root cause behind them. If the cause is fixed, the symptoms disappear. Like a great architect, you should not only be able to design a building’s purpose but also anticipate its wear and tear over time. During this period, tracking progress can be difficult as you reduce the work around you. One solution is to benchmark your work to others and see if there are lower levels of complaints, bugs, etc.
Level 5. Self-Discipline to Maximize Where You Do Your Best Work
In this phase, you are optimally managing your work. Now, the last variable to manage is yourself. Understanding how the human mind works, how it needs rest, proper nutrition, and knowing what your own daily peak and valley cycles are, allow you to make the most out of your day. This can be especially challenging for young people.
Over time identify in what situations you do your best work and try to recreate a similar environment where you can spend as much time as possible in that zone. You can identify if are doing well if you feel minimal instances of burnout. To clarify, you can still feel stress (that means you are challenging yourself), but not to an overwhelming amount where you feel constantly depleted.
Measuring your progress in terms of your own value-add challenges you as it is not about the amount of time you invest in getting better if that time is poorly managed. It is the amount of time spent on optimal development, automation, or resolving core problems that are significant.
No matter what position you are in, front line or back office, if you are improving the organization and its ability to serve clients, the answer to measuring your progress often lies in tracking how much you are adding value.